PHILADELPHIA – A growing question inside the Trail Blazers’ early season has been the noticeable drop off in production from Maurice Harkless.
The Blazers’ starting small forward is not scoring. He’s not rebounding. He’s not producing much of anything these days
“I just feel like I’m just out there to be out there … I don’t know,’’ Harkless said Wednesday after he had 1 point, zero rebounds, zero assists and zero blocks or steals in the Blazers’ 101-81 loss in Philadelphia.
Harkless has never been a player whose value is best measured by statistics. He is primarily a defender, whose value is enhanced by his ability to switch and guard anyone from forwards to guards on pick-and-rolls.
But in Portland he has also been able to make an impact on offense by getting out in transition, scoring off offensive rebounds, and making quick cuts to the basket.
But little, if any, of those things are happening lately.
“I’m just out there, and that’s frustrating,’’ Harkless said. “I’m just out there playing defense, which is cool … running back and forth. Out there running track.’’
Coach Terry Stotts last week described Harkless’ defense this season as “solid … like the rest of the team” but his non-descript play begs the question of how much longer Stotts can afford to start Harkless when the team’s offensive woes are so prevalent?
I asked Stotts that exact question after Wednesday’s loss and received a blank stare. In other words, he didn’t want to address it.
Harkless, for his part, says he wants to contribute more, but is not sure how he can in this offense.
“We gotta figure out ways … not only me, but ways to get other people going,’’ Harkless said. “Every game it’s the same thing … we play through three people.’’
Harkless was referring to guards Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic, who have combined to take 57 percent of the team’s shots this season, which is about on par with what other talented trio take (Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook/Paul George/Carmelo Anthony take 60 percent of the Thunder’s shots while Golden State sees 55 percent of its shots go through Steph Curry/Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson).
That leaves the likes of Harkless, Evan Turner, Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier and Noah Vonleh, to “get in where you fit in” to steal a phrase from Harkless.
“Everybody else is just …. It’s hard to get into a rhythm,’’ Harkless said. “It’s that simple.’’
To be clear, Harkless wasn’t whining, and he wasn’t trying to throw shade on teammates. He was being asked uncomfortable questions about his lack of production and he was trying to give explanations in the most professional and honest way.
“I’m not concerned … I don’t know. We just have to figure something out,’’ Harkless said.
In the last three games, Harkless’ impact has been minimal. Before his quiet night in Philadelphia, he had three blocks and scored two key inside baskets in the third quarter of a win at Memphis, which was the highlight of a 4-point, 4-rebound performance. The game before against Sacramento, he didn’t attempt a shot and finished with zero points, one rebound and two assists in 19 minutes.
Last season, he averaged a career-best 10 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range. This year, he is averaging 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 40.6 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from three-point range.
It’s not like this has been a sudden development. Since a sterling debut, when his defense was one of the big talking points of the season-opening win in Phoenix, he has drifted into anonymity. He and I have had a couple talks along the way, addressing and analyzing where he is, and where he fits.
“It gets frustrating at times,’’ Harkless said after the Orlando game on Nov. 15. “I feel like I could bring more to the team. Especially on the offensive end. It just is what it is. The way we are playing right now, it’s just my role right now.
“I’m not going to try and go over the coaches head, or something like that, or complain. I feel like we are playing pretty solid right now, so I just have to do what I can do to help us win. When the shots come, I have to knock them down, and that’s it. I just have to make the most of it.’’
Part of the puzzle in unlocking Harkless is it takes other players to get him going. He rarely has the ball in his hands, and he has to score either on spot-up three’s or while slashing to the basket, both of which require somebody to make a play for him.
“It’s not like, I’m Evan (Turner) - when he comes in the game, he has the ball in his hands and he can shoot whenever he wants to,’’ Harkless said. “I’m pretty much in a position where I’m just waiting around and you have to pass me the ball. A lot of times I’m open and guys may miss me or I make a cut and they miss me. I just have to keep playing, I can’t worry about that stuff.’’
Last season, through the first 18 games Harkless was averaging 10 shots a game. This season, he is averaging 5.6. The difference, of course, is the Blazers now have Jusuf Nurkic.
Instead of Lillard and CJ and a supporting cast, the offense has become the big three and shots have dried up. Perhaps, too, has the movement, as more players know they aren’t likely to be involved.
Lillard, for one, says he tries to remain cognizant of the role players like Harkless, and keep them involved in the offense.
“If you want a guy to go out and rebound and defend and play as active as we want Moe to, you have to give him an opportunity to touch the ball and be involved with it,’’ Lillard said last week. “So I’m always conscious of who hasn’t gotten a shot, who is involved and who hasn’t been involved.’’
Stotts has often tried to start games by running a play for Harkless. And in the Denver game – a game in which Harkless got just two shots – the team turned the ball over twice early trying to get him the ball.
“His shot attempts are a product of the game,’’ Stotts explained, noting he is a player who excels in transition and scoring off rebounds. “And some of it is him looking to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there.’’
So, as the Blazers (10-8) try to gain traction offensively this season, Harkless is trying to figure out how and where he can help. It has been a frustrating endeavor because he understands and accepts his role, but also wants to, and knows he can, help more than he has so far.
“A lot of the things I do don’t show up on the stat sheet, that’s a part of the game we need and I know that’s a part of my role on this team is to do those things, ‘’ Harkless said last week. “But at the same time, I obviously want to produce a little more and get more opportunity to produce. So, I feel like a lot of that I create on my own, whether that be offensive rebounds or whatever. You look at last year, I averaged 10-11 points but a lot of it came from offensive rebounds and transition and stuff like that, and that’s stuff I create on my own.
“It’s frustrating playing and getting only two shots and the game and the game I did get 11 shots (Brooklyn), I made three. So it’s a little frustrating, but I just have to keep going and be ready for when the opportunity comes. It’s been hard with the inconsistency, but it’s part of the game, and it’s just the situation I’m in right now, and I just have to continue make the most of my situation.’’